For the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, two Iranian warships crossed the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean and docked in Syria on Wednesday, where a joint military reception is scheduled to take place. There is no doubt that the Iranian move is a carefully-timed, opportunistic propaganda stunt aimed at sending several messages in multiple directions. Moreover, Iran is testing the new political situation in Egypt as it relates to the future of Cairo’s security cooperation with Israel. However, whether this presages a bolder operational objective down the road – and whether such an objective is feasible – is far less certain.
It’s not been lost on any observer that Tehran’s decision to send these two ships – a frigate and an accompanying supply vessel – through the Suez Canal was an integral part of the narrative the Iranian regime has been conveying in an attempt to control the perceptions surrounding the region’s unfolding developments.
The Iranians were quick to paint the developments in Egypt in particular as the manifestation of an Islamic awakening, following the example set by Iran’s own revolution. In so doing, Tehran was casting itself as the leader of a popular Islamic wave that would overturn the American regional architecture and replace it with an Iran-led order. The message is that America’s allies are falling, and Iran is reaping the benefits, increasing its regional sway.
Hence, the dispatch of the naval vessels served as a display of Iranian confidence and power projection. Furthermore, the intended symbolism of the shift in the regional power structure was rather obvious: Whereas a year ago it was an Israeli ship that crossed the Suez Canal on to the Red Sea, in this new era, it’s the Iranian navy that’s dispatching its vessels in the opposite direction, docking to Israel’s north on the Syrian coast.
Beyond the propaganda, the Iranians also wanted to test the interim Egyptian military government, as well as the pulse of the post-Hosni Mubarak political landscape and its attitude toward the peace treaty with Israel, the policy toward Gaza and Hamas, and Egypt’s security cooperation with Israel. By pushing the passage of their vessels at this moment, the Iranians calculated that their move would appear to have clinched an Egyptian break with the Mubarak-era policies.
Furthermore, although the Iranians are aware that this is the same Egyptian army that has been behind the Mubarak regime, they also realize that the military government has to contend with a host of more pressing domestic issues. In addition, they are probing Egyptian antipathy to the peace treaty with Israel, while banking that the treaty’s association with Mubarak will push his successors to maintain at least a cooler posture toward it, if only for domestic purposes.
On this count, Tehran’s calculation may not be off. To be sure, while this stunt may have caused a diplomatic headache for the Egyptians, it also provided them with an opportunity to send a message of their own to the US and Israel that they no longer can be taken for granted. On the other hand, it’s also been pointed out that Cairo didn’t have much of a choice, as it was required to allow the vessels’ passage, once Iran paid the entry fee.
However, all these factors notwithstanding, does the passage of the Iranian warships have concrete operational value? It’s quite clear that Iran’s modest, aging navy poses no serious conventional threat. That’s why one theory holds that the Iranian intention is to establish a direct naval route to smuggle arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The comment by State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley seemed to reflect concerns about this possibility. “It’s not really about the ships,” Crowley said. “It’s about what the ships are carrying, what’s their destination, what’s the cargo on board, where’s it going, to whom and for what benefit.”
Of course, the concern goes beyond this particular convoy to future ones, should Iran actually decide to make this a routine practice. However, there is skepticism regarding Iran’s capabilities to sustain such an operation. After all, one can reasonably ask, if the Egyptians legally had no option but to let them pass, why didn’t the Iranians try to pull this stunt before? But even should it somehow obtain the logistical capacity, Iran would still face several hurdles, not least of which is the Israeli military.
Indeed, Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, was quite clear about how his country would act in that situation, openly declaring that were the two vessels “bringing rockets or weapons or explosives to Hamas or Hezbollah, we would have probably acted against them.” And while some might think that the Israeli navy – or anyone else for that matter – would have to think twice before intercepting an Iranian vessel, they seem to forget that there are other ways to sabotage such decrepit convoys.
In any case, one would think that the US, as it carefully monitors the effects of the region’s upheavals on its strategic interests, would not stand by and allow Iran to set up an unmolested naval pipeline to Hezbollah. However, even if Iran’s stunt has little operational value at this stage, Washington has its work cut out for it if it is to make sure that Tehran doesn’t turn its propaganda to reality.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. This article was first published on NOW Lebanon.